Learning Science Made Easy: Retrieval Practice

Let’s say you encounter a juicy, insightful paragraph while reading an article and think, “Wow, this is good. I need to remember this.” You slow down and read it again. About a week later, someone brings up the same topic and you think to yourself, “I read something about that, but what was it? What the heck, I reread it. Why didn’t it stick?”

Ah, yes, the human brain, it’s picky about learning. You learn the way your brain needs to learn, or you don’t learn at all. People who attend your educational programs encounter the same phenomenon. Unless you build learning science principles, like retrieval practice, into your programs, attendees and learners won’t retain the new information you provide. Later, they’ll wonder just what they got for the time and money they invested in your program.

The basics of retrieval practice

After reading or hearing the new content you want to learn, it’s time for retrieval practice—retrieving and producing that new content from your memory. Retrieval practice results in sticky learning: the more often you retrieve and produce new information from your memory, the more likely it will stick with you for the long-term.

labrador retriever puppy on a bed beside an open book and eyeglasses -retrieval practice

Why retrieval practice works

The goal of retrieval practice is to put new knowledge into practice. It provides a way for learners to recall and apply what they’ve learned and is a much more effective method than rereading.

Here’s a non-scientific interpretation of how retrieval practice works.

•    The brain receives information via reading, watching, or listening.

•    This sensory memory goes into short-term (working) memory. However, if you don’t soon retrieve and rehearse this information, it’s forgotten.

•    Retrieval practice moves the information into long-term memory where it’s retained. When you retrieve and use a memory, it creates a stronger bond and is easier to access in the future.

Retrieval practice applies the spaced learning technique. Retrieval practice breaks up the delivery of content, gives learners the opportunity to recall and apply new knowledge over and over, and helps them stay engaged and focused.

7 ways to build retrieval practice into your educational programs

Here are some ways learners can use retrieval practice to recall and apply new information. At the Love To Teach website, Kate Jones shares a collection of retrieval practice resources.

#1: Quizzes. Add quizzes to the end of each module. Multiple-choice quizzes are the most common for online learning, but you could also use short answer or fill-in-the-blank quizzes. For retrieval practice, these quizzes should be ‘low-stakes,’ i.e., mistakes have no consequences.

By taking quizzes, learners (and their instructors) get immediate feedback on what they know and don’t know. Quizzes show the learner and instructor where they need to spend more time—where to go back for review and retrieval again. Quizzes should include explainers for right and wrong answers.

#2: Individual exercises. Ask the learner to write about their new knowledge, sketch a concept map about it, organize it, or create and use flashcards to practice retrieving it. Provide exercises that help them get the content out of their head and onto the page.

In an asynchronous program, ask the learner to pause the video and write about the content. In all these exercises, it’s important for the learner to do more than just think about the content. They might rush the process if they’re only asked to think about it. Make sure they intentionally retrieve the information and produce it again in some format.

At the end of each lesson, ask learners to write a recap of their main take-aways—from memory first, and then assisted to fill in any blanks.

computer screen showing a group Zoom meeting - retrieval practice

#3: Group exercises. At the beginning of a new class, ask learners to discuss the most important take-aways from the last class. During the session, ask them to discuss new content together or answer questions in a chat box, online community forum, breakout room, or, if in person, at a session table.

#4: Hybrid exercises. Pose a reflection question to the group. Ask them to think and/or write about it first, then respond in the chat box or share in their group.

#5: Pre-event reading. Ask attendees to prepare for a program by reading introductory material before the event. During the event, start with a refresher and practice session before diving deeper.

#6: Post-event follow-up. After a conference or educational event, send out emails or, if using an event app, messages with reflection prompts or exercises about applying what they’ve learned. Encourage attendees to share their thoughts in a special forum of your online community.

#7: Presentations. Teach what you want to learn—that’s retrieval practice too. Review the information, retrieving what you’ve previously studied. Think about the best way to present it to others. Create the presentation outline, rehearse it, create handouts or slides, and then give the presentation. Consider doing a lunch-and-learn presentation after the next conference you attend if you want to ensure you retain the new content. By the time you give your presentation, you’ll know the information better than ever and will be ready for questions.

Don’t keep retrieval practice a secret. Tell adult learners how it’s built into their program and why it works. Teach them how to become better learners so they can take retrieval practice out into the world with them.

learning science
adult learning
instructional design
course development
Sign up for our newsletter to be the first to receive our blog posts and updatesSubscribe